When I moved to the UK in 1980, the curry enthusiast in me quietly died. “Indian” restaurants weren’t Indian. I’m not trying to be pedantic and distinguishing between Indian and Bangladeshi: in fact, as someone who was born in Calcutta and lived there for 23 years, Bangladeshi food would have been more recognisable by me than most other cuisines from India.
“Indian” restaurants weren’t Indian. A large number of them appeared to be run by people from Sylhet, but that wasn’t what made them UnIndian. It was the bill of fare. Meat Madras? What was that? Chicken Vindaloo? Was that even possible? Lamb Kashmir? What were these things?
If someone told you that a restaurant was “European” what would you understand or expect? Smorgasbord accompanied by moussaka, crepes fighting it out with blinis? Paella and provolone? Blood sausage and bufalo? Schnitzel and szczawiowa?
That’s how I felt when I was told I was in an “Indian” restaurant? Indian what? Indian how? Punjabi? Generally North Indian? Gujarati (and primarily vegetarian)? South Indian (and once again usually vegetarian?)? Bengali? Andhra? Anglo-Indian? Goan? What kind of Indian?
When I entered the restaurant, I was none the wiser. The menu might as well have been written in Finno-Ugric. So I starved. More importantly, I was starved of capsaicin. Home-cooked curries provided by well-meaning friends often contained apples and raisins and decades-old curry powder. Pubs began to offer curries as well, which usually meant someone had cooked a chili con carne and added some turmeric very late in the day to currify it. I starved.
It was hard to get used to the fact that most Indian restaurants had already adapted the cuisine to deliver what the local populace wanted; that vindalho and Bangalore and Phal and Rezala had just become shorthand for hot/very hot/very very hot/and so on, directed primarily towards the Dortmunder lager crew.
I starved. When I could afford to go to pricier Indian restaurants in London, and when I could afford to travel further, I found real Indian cuisine. Restaurants clearly signalling what kind of food they served, menus that contained things I recognised. But that took time.
There was a way out. A simple way out. And it was this. Go to one of the Sylheti Indian restaurants, speak in Bengali, ask for “staff curry”. And you were taken into the bosom of the restaurant, served what the workers would eat when they finished work, and it was heaven. A catch. You had to wait till nearly closing time before “staff curry” would be ready. But it was worth the wait.
One of the quirks of staff curry was that it was made up largely of leftover ingredients, so you weren’t sure what you would get. But it would be Bengali and spicy and recognisable and taste like heaven. There were other bonuses. Sometimes I would be asked to make sure I came back there a few days later, when they would have hilsa. What Calcuttan could resist?
Most days the staff curry was excellent. Occasionally it was way better than that. Meat that came on the bone as well as off, in succulent gently-chewy mouthfuls of manna. [Reminded me of Moira St neighbour Allan’s incredible pork curry, with the pork “boiled in oil” …. because the doctor said he couldn’t have fried food…]. There was something about the meat that took me back years, decades, half a life. So I had to ask. And they said “lamb”. I wouldn’t budge. So they said “mutton”. I was unmoved. They hummed and hawed. And confessed.
Goat curry. What joy. And how I’d missed having it. I must have been 15 or 16 when I first had it, had it regularly for five or six years, and then missed it for a similar period. Never again.
That love for goat curry instilled a fascination for goats that has stayed with me ever since. Amazing creatures. They can climb anything, get anywhere.
When I first went to Capri I was struck by a number of things. How beautiful it all was, the magnificent views. The price of a cup of coffee. And the relative inaccessibility of the island. While arguments continue as to the origins of the name, the locals insisted it was “Goat Island”, a place dismissed by early would-be settlers on the basis that only goats could climb it. I’m with the locals.
A recent video that made its way to me via the internets makes this point forcefully:
Goats didn’t just give their name to the island of Capri. There is an argument that yet another of my staples, the wonderful caper, may come from the same root. While this is a topic of much dispute, I am comfortable with the view expressed by locals in many parts of Italy, Turkey and Cyprus: capers grow where only goats go.
If it walks like a goat and it talks like a goat, it’s a goat.
Where would I be without capers? For one thing, no puttanesca, which would be terrible. [Incidentally, there’s another row brewing over the origins of that dish].
Amazing creatures, goats. Naming constellations in the skies. Labelling islands in the sun. Pointing towards pieces of our food. Helping protect us and shoe us, even feed us. So many of my favourite Spanish cheeses are made from goat milk, particularly the tronchon.
The queso de tronchon even makes its way int0 my favourite book, Don Quixote. [Incidentally, I collect anything and everything to do with Don Quixote. Different editions of the book, in different languages, with different illustrators. Figures and figurines. Objects ranging from buttons and necklaces and boxes and book covers through to bottles and even tables and cabinets. If it’s Don Quixote, I’m interested. I have a few hundred items already, so I may not bid for everything].
Amazing creatures, goats.